In Mideast, Rice stresses civilian relief

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first foray in the Middle East since fighting began between Israel and Hizbullah, her focus was on efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, where a half-million-plus people have been displaced.

Ms. Rice had lowered expectations for a cease-fire before her meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, disappointing many in the region who had hoped for a stronger bid to stem the conflict.

A meeting in Rome Thursday of American, European, and Arab officials will address both the prospects for a cease-fire as well as a peacekeeping force. In the interim, improving conditions for those without electricity, water, and food was a "major" issue in talks between Rice and Mr. Olmert, which lasted about two hours Tuesday morning.

Following the meeting, Olmert said in a statement that Israel would open air and land routes into Lebanon to allow aid to enter the country.

Lebanon-bound airplanes carrying humanitarian assistance will be allowed to land at Beirut Airport after prior coordination with Israel. The airport was shut down two weeks ago after Israeli jets bombed the runway repeatedly.

Israel also agreed to establish a land route that would run over the border into Lebanon.

"The prime minister said he was very sensitive to the humanitarian situation in Lebanon, and therefore he decided to expand the humanitarian corridors in order to assist the Lebanese population," read a statement issued by the prime minister.

Tuesday, the US pledged $30 million to pay for sheets, blankets, and plastic sheet rolls. Speaking to reporters at a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the secretary of State said she hoped that her efforts could leave civilians in a better situation.

The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that it was awaiting a direct confirmation from Israel that it would be guaranteed safe passage to bring relief supplies from Syria into Lebanon.

A team of Israeli military officials will meet with international military experts to outline the routes, Olmert told Rice in Jerusalem.

But a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva (UNHCR) said the agency had yet to receive formal notification from Israel. "We have no word of a safe corridor in Lebanon," she told The Associated Press.

She said the UN agency wanted a direct guarantee from Israel that its supply convoys would be able to pass through the Syria-Lebanon border zone safely. Otherwise, she said, "it's not very practical for our immediate needs to get the goods we have in Syria into Lebanon."

Until such a guarantee is issued by Israel, the UNHCR said that some of the stockpiled aid would be distributed to centers housing Lebanese refugees in Damascus, Syria.

Even though the road to a cease-fire remains obscure amid Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, it appears that Rice believes the US can help parlay the crisis into a regional makeover that will boost democratic regimes and isolate terrorists.

"It is time for a new Middle East," Rice said in Jerusalem. "It is time to say to those that don't want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail. They will not."

In her comments about a cease-fire, the secretary has used high-minded language, referencing, for example, the need to base the cease-fire on "enduring principles." Rice is speaking of the two major foreign policy goals of the Bush administration: The emergence of new democracies, and the disarmament of nonstate groups that the US considers terrorists, such as Hizbullah.

Middle East experts do not expect that Hizbullah will fully disarm as a result of this conflict, something which Rice has been tacitly acknowledging.

While the US does not talk directly to either Syria or Hizbullah, Rice did meet in Beirut Monday with Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who has ties to both Hizbullah and Syria.

Rice told Mr. Berri, according to a diplomatic source, that a cease-fire would be possible if Hizbullah pulled back about 12 miles from the Israeli border and released the two Israeli soldiers.

While Hizbullah and its allies continue to insist that those demands are unacceptable, they stop well short of disarming the group.

For his part, Berri made it clear that the meeting wasn't very productive. In an interview with Al-Arabiyah, he said he told Rice that Israel's bombing of Lebanon has left destruction "equivalent to that from a nuclear bomb,'' and insisted that Syria and Iran had nothing to do with instigating the current conflict.

While Hizbullah sparked the latest conflict in Lebanon, daily images of Israeli bombing raids on Lebanese towns and of dead and dying Lebanese civilians have shifted almost all of the blame in Arab eyes onto Israel and the US.

To Arabs, America's drive for a "new Middle East" appears to be a drive for a region that is friendlier to Israel and militarily weaker overall.

Throughout the region's capitals, many who support democratic change for their own countries are condemning Israeli "aggression."

They see the current turmoil in Iraq as evidence not of a democracy push, but of what happens to regimes that oppose US and Israeli interests.

"The perception here is that the reason why we have these dictatorships – not the sole reason, but one of the reasons – is because the United State's backs them in exchange for their Israel-friendly policies,'' says Alaa Abdel-Fatah, an Egyptian democracy activist who spent 45 days in jail this May and June. He was arrested for attending a peaceful rally calling for an independent Egyptian judiciary.

As for Israel, he says, "It's not just about Palestine or solidarity. What people in the US miss is that we view the Arab-Israeli conflict as one for existence."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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